On Aug. 7-9, the Cheyenne River Youth Project welcomed seven young people to its two-night Lakota Summer Camp in the Waniyetu Wowapi (Winter Count) Art Park. Made possible with support from the Association on American Indian Affairs, this was the latest installment in the nonprofit organization’s free Lakota Camp program, which encourages Lakota youth to strengthen their connections to traditional culture and the natural environment. 

CRYP hosted its first seasonal Lakota camps in 2022, offering spring and summer installments. It kicked off its first Winter Camp earlier this year.

“Our goal is to continue to build this program so we can offer four camps per year,” said Jerica Widow, CRYP’s programs director. “Our sacred Lakota life ways move in rhythm with Unci Makha (Mother Earth) and the four seasons, and we want our Lakota Camps to reflect that rhythm. 

“Each camp is a deeply meaningful experience for our kids,” she continued. “Taking part in an immersive program like this means they also are reclaiming their ancestral rights as Lakota people.” 

Monday, the first day of camp, incorporated a Lakota language class with Manny and Renee Iron Hawk. The young people learned about summer ceremonies and traditional harvesting techniques, practiced Lakota words for various camping items, and worked on introductory conversations.

“By the end of the lesson, each participant had a short conversation in Lakota in which they introduced themselves, asked the other person’s name, explained where they are from and where they currently live, and then asked the other person the same questions,” Widow said. 

Afterward, staff and participants assembled a tipi and tents, also learning about camping protocols and safety, and gathered for a light meal before moving into the evening’s activities.

“During that first evening, the young people participated in the Lakota inipi (sweat purification) ceremony with Joseph Brings Plenty Sr., who is our Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe District No. 5 council representative,” Widow said. “He was so helpful and provided valuable Lakota ceremonial knowledge. Then, before bed, the kids enjoyed a campfire and roasting s’mores.” 

According to Widow, the time around the campfire led to some profound conversations. She recalled one camper who was asked about the happiest moment in her life. 

“She said RedCan (the youth project’s annual invitational graffiti jam) was the happiest time in her life,” Widow said. “She explained that CRYP has become a place where she has made some of her most meaningful relationships, with staff as mentors and with peers as best friends. 

“Not only will the cultural knowledge gained throughout the camp help youth remain rooted in their Lakota culture,” she continued, “but the friendships that were strengthened and the core memories that were made will be treasured by staff and campers alike.” 

On Tuesday morning, CRYP’s youth advisory council talked with the campers about the Lakota values they uphold and protect through their council service. When the six council members were finished, the group harvested chokecherries in CRYP’s Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) Garden.

“They learned to preserve the fruit by crushing the cherries, popping the seeds, and then dehydrating them into patties,” Widow explained. 

Later in the day, the group visited the Missouri River roughly 50 miles east of Eagle Butte. There, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation border, they learned to fish, they hiked in the area, and they swam, skipped rocks and played games like Marco Polo in the river.

“After all that activity, everyone was ready to return to campus for a hearty buffalo dinner,” Widow said. “While we were gathered for the meal, the campers learned about Lakota star knowledge and listened to traditional Lakota stories that have been passed down over the generations.” 

Camp concluded on Wednesday morning. Campers learned to take down the tipi, broke down the tents, and took some time to reflect on their individual camp experiences and takeaways. 

Widow advised that CRYP is planning to host a Lakota Fall Camp. More details will be available in the coming weeks.

To learn more about the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its programs, and for information about making donations and volunteering, call (605) 964-8200 or visit www.lakotayouth.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.